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A mixed career and not without cost

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Jackie Brearley aimed to go into mixed practice, but ended up as an anaesthesia specialist. She then changed direction, developing Cambridge vet school’s clinical skills centre.

MY father was a doctor but medicine never held any attraction for me. I was always someone who wanted to help, but the subject of that help was always animals. I wanted to be a vet.

The careers advice from my comprehensive school was that if I didn’t get into vet school I could always do an HND in agriculture. Even at the time this seemed a strange either/or, but I was focused and, with the help of some amazing teachers, I got into Cambridge.

During vet school, I worked on local pig and dairy farms and spent time in Wales, working with sheep. My clinical EMS was mainly mixed practice and I soon decided this was where my heart lay.

I was going to be a mixed animal general practitioner – no question.

During my final year I felt I needed more training in surgery, so I applied for the equivalent of a surgical internship, which I was lucky enough to get. However, at the end of my year as an ‘intern’, I was offered a job in anaesthesia not surgery – anaesthesia was an interest of mine, but not as strong as surgery. It was the beginning of my journey to becoming a specialist in anaesthesia.

Over the next 30 years I rose through the ranks, via a RCVS diploma and a PhD, a bit of research, lots of clinical work, some postgraduate teaching of residents and, more recently, teaching undergraduates back at my alma mater.

Direction change

I was in the right place when Cambridge vet school decided that clinical skills would be best taught in a clinical skills centre.

I was asked to head this venture; it was a very exciting enterprise. I got to visit the other vet schools, shamelessly looking for ideas. They were all very generous with their time and information and still are.

Catherine Wager was appointed clinical skills facilitator and we have developed the centre together.

On a typical day, I may teach a group of fifth-year students about anaesthesia skills, which can be taught in context. At the same time, at the other end of the room peer-to-peer teaching between final-year students and fifth years can be achieved using the haptic horse. We might then help students practise single-handed knot ties, while another teacher teaches first years dog handling.

At the end of the day, the centre is set up for open access – it is always in demand by our students.

Teaching awards

The students obviously think we are doing something right as they nominated me for a Cambridge University Student Union Teaching Award last year.

And the department must think we have some interesting ideas too, as it nominated me for a Pilkington Prize. The Pilkington Prizes are university-wide awards that recognise outstanding teaching.

This year I was one of a few recipients, which was a great comment on the centre.

Without my colleagues the teaching would not be the standard it is, so the award is really recognition for the team.

I didn’t realise you can do too much. I burnt out last year and am still coming to terms with that

I have had a mixed career but it hasn’t been without some cost.

I have enjoyed my work so much that I didn’t realise it was possible to do too much. I burnt out last year and am still coming to terms with that.

Now I work three days a week. Part-time work is not a therapy for the breakdown, more that it allows me to do what I want in all parts of my life at my present stage of life.

I have time to enjoy teaching, clinical work and even running – I am training for the 2018 London Marathon. Today, while running, I saw a barn owl with a mouse in its beak and a muntjac deer, and heard a buzzard lamenting.

I also helped teach some of the brightest brains in Britain and later watched MasterChef while eating a curry – how good can life get?

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